High-flying satellites give land managers the low-down on cheatgrass

RICHLAND, Wash. Cheatgrass, a fast-growing, fire-fueling weed, has met its match.

The Idaho Bureau of Land Management and several weed control groups are fighting back with new software that uses NASA satellite imagery and complex computer programs to show the location and growth of this noxious plant that has invaded the arid West from desert lowlands to high mountains.

The technology is available to local and state agencies through the Pacific Northwest Regional Collaboratory, the partnership of scientists and engineers from area universities and Department of Energy national laboratories that developed the software.

Cheatgrass has little forage value, increases the frequency of wildfires and elbows out native species, promoting soil erosion and reducing the value of pasture lands. Invasive plants such as cheatgrass cost land managers billions of dollars each year and have encroached upon more than 100 million acres in the United States.

Known by several names, including downy brome and June grass, cheatgrass is bright green in the late fall and early spring. It turns a rusty red to purple at maturity, making it easy to spot in the late spring when other plants are green. Its spiky seed heads are infamous for attaching themselves to socks, fur and animals' ears.

"The best way to get a handle on the extent of cheatgrass and target large areas for treatment is to look at the big picture," said project ecologist Janelle Downs, a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "NASA satellite imagery provides that big landscape picture and lets land managers be smarter in using their treatment dollars," Downs said.

PNNL's Roger Anderson, collaboratory manager, explained that, although satellites of NASA's Earth Observing System measure the energy bounced back by the earth's surface and send terabytes of data every day to NASA stations on earth, the data have not been accessible to many resource m

Contact: Judith Graybeal
DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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